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’04 Dura-Ace delights

With the Tour raging on less than 100km away, it seems fitting that Shimano chose the sleepy salt-mining town of Bex, Switzerland, to hold its official Dura-Ace unveiling. As the Japanese group gets thoroughly put through its paces by the world's fastest racers just over the Swiss border in France, a few journalists are quietly getting the official lowdown on the high-end group. And while many of its technical details are already known, this is the first opportunity for us to ride the next-generation road group. The sleek new Dura-Ace boasts some pretty bold promises. Shimano claims its

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VeloNews test-drives Shimano’s latest and greatest

By Andrew Juskaitis, VeloNews technical editor

With the Tour raging on less than 100km away, it seems fitting that Shimano chose the sleepy salt-mining town of Bex, Switzerland, to hold its official Dura-Ace unveiling. As the Japanese group gets thoroughly put through its paces by the world’s fastest racers just over the Swiss border in France, a few journalists are quietly getting the official lowdown on the high-end group. And while many of its technical details are already known, this is the first opportunity for us to ride the next-generation road group.

The sleek new Dura-Ace boasts some pretty bold promises. Shimano claims its flagship road group is lighter, more comfortable and more efficient than previous generations. “The theme for the new group is simple: speed, smooth and strength,” explains Shimano’s Chris DiStefano. “Speed and smoothness result in easier shifting, improved braking and more comfortable ergonomics, all with an updated aesthetic design. Most importantly, we achieve lighter overall weight of the group without any sacrifice in rigidity, durability or precision.”

For the complete technical scoop, including weight and technical specifications, see issue No. 14 of VeloNews. In the meantime, here are a few first impressions from the land of edelweiss:

Hop on a 2004 Dura-Ace-equipped bike and you’re most likely to notice the following features (listed in order of magnitude):

First and foremost, it’s hard to ignore the significant stiffness that the FC-7800 crankset and bottom bracket offer. Borrowing from the design of the 2003 XTR off-road crankset and bottom bracket, the Dura-Ace crankset uses a two-piece design to achieve lighter weight and a stiffer interface. A massive chromoly axle is press-fitted into the drive-side Hollowtech II arm, where, unlike the XTR version, the exposed outside hole is then sealed over. The axle passes though the equally massive BB-7700 bottom bracket. Since the BB is so large, its bearings are located outside of the BB shell, but the new crankset’s Q-factor remains the same as current Dura-Ace, DiStefano says.

The key to the cranks, says DiStefano, is the oversize bottom-bracket axle and outward-placed bearings. While current Dura-Ace bearings are 53.8mm apart, 2004 Dura-Ace bearing boast 82mm-wide placement. This oversize construction and outboard bearing placement translate into the stiffest crankset I’ve ever had a chance to ride. While 2003 Dura-Ace Hollowtech/Octalink technology offers impressive stiffness performance under heavy inputs, 2004 D-A blows even its predecessor’s performance out of the water. Lighter riders might not immediately realize this but can take solace from the fact that the new setup is not only stiffer, but almost 40 grams lighter than before.

Not too far behind the impressive performance of the FC-7800 crankset is the much-redesigned ST-7800 STI Dual Control lever. Narrower in height and width throughout the hoods, the levers surprisingly extend no farther out than ’03 D-A. The angle between the hood and the handlebar has been reduced, while the hood has also been reduced 5mm in circumference. In the riding we’ve done this week, I’ve noticed the reduced-radius hoods allow longer time on the hoods without having to shift hand positions due to numbness or “hot-spot” pressures normally associated with 2003 D-A levers. This comes as a surprise to me, as I guessed the narrower levers would disappear under my larger-than-average hands. This isn’t the case, thanks to the improved shape. While not as attractive as 2003 D-A (in my opinion), 2004 is shaping up to be more comfortable (weighing in the same as 2003).

But the changes to the levers aren’t all ergonomic – numerous improvements are hidden both inside and out. The shift stroke (the movement of the upshift and downshift levers) has been improved for a more ergonomic flow. “Instead of simply moving side-to-side, the new levers move slightly inward as well throughout their travel,” said DiStefano. “This provides for a more natural hand position throughout the full range of the lever’s movement.” The overall lever throw for both levers has also been reduced by 10mm for less input effort. As a final improvement, the shift effort required for upshifts (the inboard release lever) has also been reduced, promoting quicker shifting to a higher cog or middle chainring. Slam a couple of shifts and you’re certain to agree this is the most accurate, smoothly shifting component system ever to grace a bicycle.

Granted, our system has been professionally installed and maintained by Shimano factory mechanics, but if real-world performance is even a fraction of what we’re seeing here at press camp, 2004 Dura-Ace sets a new standard in shifting. The longer levers require less finger force to shift, and their more-ergonomic path is better suited to the hand’s natural movement. Both features are very noticeable on the road and significant enough to help justify upgrading in ’04. One downside: While Dura-Ace has always boasted all-aluminum construction, some riders might be disappointed to find the return levers of the shifters are now “composite” (i.e., plastic).

On the long (and I mean long) switchback alpine descents we’ve hit the last few days, the improved performance of the BR-7800 Dual Pivot brake has also left a positive impression on me. Shimano’s claim that the front brake’s power has been increased 30 percent is not just PR-speak, it’s readily apparent when you need it most.

As for the 10-speed system, sure, there’s a extra cog in there somewhere, but its addition is overshadowed by these other, much more noticeable technical features. The more robust front and rear derailleurs help provide the system’s smoother and crisper shifting performance, but more or less have disappeared from my consciousness when riding.

Look for additional notes from camp down the road. For now, it’s time to heed the call of Heidi and head back up into the hills for some more testing.